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HUNTINGTON - At Necco, the search for foster parents is never-ending.

"We need triple the amount of foster families," said Zeke Davis, program director of the Necco office in Logan.

There are currently 6,623 children in foster care from West Virginia, according to the latest report from the Department of Health and Human Resources from Aug. 31. Almost 6 percent, or 395 children, are being housed out-of-state, mainly in group homes or long-term psychiatric facilities.

Davis said the biggest need is for foster families willing to take older children and children with special needs, who are more likely to be sent out-of-state to group homes.

"There are DHHR workers who are living with children in hotels for days and even weeks," he said.

The issue was brought up Friday during a round table discussion in Huntington about healthcare hosted by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

"You know, there are some counties in West Virginia that don't have a single foster family," Manchin said.

Davis calls it a foster care crisis, which coincides with the opioid and addiction crisis gripping the country. Some children are in care while their parents work to improve their lives, including substance use disorder treatment, and Davis said the goal firstly is to reunite families.

Some children can be placed with other family members - almost half of the children in the foster care system in West Virginia are in a kinship/relative home - but sometimes even family is not suitable.

"We have to find a way to get grandparents legal status," said the Rev. Barbara Chalfant, associate presbyter for mission at Presbytery of West Virginia, during Manchin's roundtable. "They care for children for six, seven years and then mom or dad comes out of jail and they never see that child again because they have no rights. They have no ability to take legal action for that child."

Necco works with biological families, both in prevention and reunification. They will help the parents work to improve their homes and lives so they can keep the unit from being disrupted as well as helping them improve after children are removed from the home. He said it's a process that works well.

Then there is the bittersweet problem of foster families adopting. It's wonderful because now the child has a permanent home and family, but for Necco, it also means they have one less foster home.

Davis said there are a lot of myths surrounding foster care, one being who qualifies to foster. He said you can be a married couple - heteronormative or same-sex - two single people living together or a single person. You must be between the ages of 21 and 65, though if you are older than 65 you can get a waiver with a doctor stating you are capable. Foster families must also have a source of income other than the foster assistance and prove you can take care of yourself financially.

The foster care crisis is not just a West Virginia problem, but a nationwide issue. In 2016, more than 20,000 young people aged out of foster care without permanent families, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Research has shown that those who leave care without being linked to forever families have a higher likelihood than youth in the general population to experience homelessness, unemployment and incarceration as adults, says Children's Rights, a child advocacy organization. All of those issues increase the likelihood of a person experiencing substance misuse, which continues the cycle of addiction.

To learn more about becoming a foster parent, visit https://www.necco.org/services/foster-care/foster-care-in-west-virginia.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

Share your opinions and experiences

Herald-Dispatch reporter Taylor Stuck will learn more about foster care in the United States and abroad during a day and a half workshop beginning Monday in New York City hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The sessions will look at new approaches to supporting vulnerable children and reuniting them with their families or placing them in alternate family care, and how journalists can best protect them and themselves while reporting on these subjects.

The first day will focus on the United States and abroad, with topics including challenges of supporting and monitoring children across federal lines, what efforts are working and can be improved and the challenge of the opioid crisis to communities.

The second day addresses the complexities of Duty of Care towards children and vulnerable adults.

What do you think is working in West Virginians foster care system and what can be improved? What concerns do you have? Email your concerns, questions and experiences with the system to Stuck at tstuck@heralddispatch.com. Your response may be used in a future story.

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